Jerry Brown’s new job: Warning the world of the danger of Trump’s nuclear arms race

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock ticked 30 seconds closer to apocalypse earlier this year.

The recent abandonment of a significant nuclear arms treaty with Russia was the most concrete result yet of Donald Trump’s enthusiasm to start a global nuclear arms race.

Trump has been clear that he actually relishes the prospect of a major nuclear-arms buildup. Before he even took office, he tweeted:

On Monday, he had this rambling, repetitive and sometimes baffling exchange with reporters (what does he mean by “come to their sense” or “get smart”?):

Q Mr. President, are you prepared to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal? You said you’re going to pull out of the arms deal.

THE PRESIDENT: Until people come to their senses, we will build it up. Until people come to their senses. Russia has not adhered to the agreement. This should’ve been done years ago. Until people come to their senses — we have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up. Until they come to their senses. When they do, then we’ll all be smart and we’ll all stop. And we’ll — and by the way, not only stop, we’ll reduce, which I would love to do. But right now, they have not adhered to the agreement.

Q Is that a threat to Vladimir Putin?

THE PRESIDENT: It’s a threat to whoever you want. And it includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game. You can’t do that. You can’t play that game on me.

Q You want more nukes is what you’re saying? You’re building up the nuclear arsenal.

Q (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT: Until people get smart. Until they get smart. They have not adhered to the spirit of that agreement, or to the agreement itself — Russia. China is not included in the agreement. They should be included in the agreement. Until they get smart, there will be nobody that’s going to be even close to us.

Even though it’s the only political issue that could kill us all any day now, nuclear weapons policy has gotten very little attention in Washington over the past several decades.

(Barack Obama, despite his soaring speech in Prague in 2009 extolling “a world without nuclear weapons,” quietly put in place a plan to spend as much as $1 trillion over the next three decades on a whole new generation of nuclear warheads, bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.)

But the Los Angeles Times reports today that California soon-to-step-down Gov. Jerry Brown is coming to Washington to sound the alarm. “My fellow politicians are totally asleep here,” Brown told John Myers. “We’re in a real predicament.”

Myers writes:

Few topics produce more fiery rhetoric from Jerry Brown, delivered with equal doses of exhortation and exasperation, than the threat posed by nuclear weapons. And as he exits the state’s political stage, California’s governor will expand his role in the global debate over nuclear disarmament.

Brown accepted an invitation Thursday to become the executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Chicago-based organization best known for its Doomsday Clock that is reset periodically to measure the threat of global annihilation. He will join the group’s leaders at their next meeting in early November.

“There’s no doubt we’re at one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous point, since the atomic bomb was first dropped,” Brown said in an interview. “There’s great and mounting hostility.”

Brown identified Trump’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, as a particular nemesis. “He is dedicated to tearing up all the nuclear agreements,” Brown told Myers. “Nuclear deterrence only works if there’s arms control.” (See this Politico story about how much Bolton loves tearing up treaties.)

Brown’s new organization ticked the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock up 30 second to two minutes from midnight earlier this year, presumably in part because of Trump’s boasting that his “nuclear button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than North Korea’s – and in part because of his overall flightiness.

The Bulletin also published a Q&A with its new leader. Brown said:

I think it’s crucial to wake people up to the dangers that still persist so many years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb. The peril grows and in no way diminishes. I think it’s important that scientists, political leaders, and other people who have positions of responsibility take the time to understand and probe into the basic issues that, if not handled right, could eliminate the whole human race.

And he had an interesting observation about why the topic gets so little media attention:

Unfortunately, the news in the so-called democratic societies, particularly in America, is a function of conflict. It’s the conflict engendered by the president or against the president through tweets, through congressional battles. That dominates a lot of news, and the risk of the end of the world is not news. The risk of even great catastrophe is not news. Smaller issues are.

Incidentally, Foreign Affairs is just out with a new issue all about nuclear weapons. It asks, somewhat perplexingly: “Do Nuclear Weapons Matter?”

Political journalists need to stop stifling their outrage

Don Lemon
CNN anchor Don Lemon is one of a very few journalists willing to show his disgust at Trump’s most outrageous conduct. (CNN)
It’s nice that the Washington Post and the New York Times the other day both ran articles pointing out that Donald Trump’s main strategy in the midterm elections is to traffic in fear and falsehoods.

It’s nice that PBS Newshour had the Toronto Star’s must-follow Trump-tracker Daniel Dale on the other night, patiently explaining to Judy “we call them false statements” Woodruff that “in our regular lives, I think the word we would use is lie. So, I think we as journalists should use it in our articles as well.”

All that fact-checking out there sure is fine, especially when it comes online while the lie is still young.

And the overall tone of Trump coverage from our top newsrooms has clearly become more skeptical over time.

But it’s all still a wildly understated reaction to a presidency that is an affront to so many core American – and journalistic – values.

Let’s be real: The vast majority of political journalists have been stifling their outrage ever since Donald Trump became a plausible candidate for president.

But by stifling that outrage, they have done a grave disservice to their audiences and to country.

By responding normally, they have unwittingly sent the message that what is going on is within the realm of the normal, when it is not.

They have let Trump widen the boundaries of socially acceptable discourse to include poisonous strains of overt racism, xenophobia and misogyny.

They have failed to defend against the erosion of democratic institutions.

Trump played the mainstream media for fools. He knew political journalists would be paralyzed into stenography by their phobia of appearing politically biased. He knew — he still knows — that every time he makes a preposterous statement, they’ll give him a megaphone, rather than a dunce cap.

Washington Post editor Marty Barron famously asserted that his organization isn’t covering Trump any differently than it would any other president. “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work,” he said.

But what is the work of a journalist? It starts with doing our best to deliver accurate information to the public — and then extends to advocacy for such core journalistic values as fair play, free speech, government transparency, a humane society, and holding the powerful accountable.

There’s a reason that not one of the top 50 American newspapers’ editorial boards endorsed Trump for president – even those that traditionally sided with Republicans. They recognized that Trump’s values are antithetical to journalism’s.

There’s a reason media outlets are having such a hard – and sometimes embarrassing – time finding Trump supporters to write op-eds or take part in panels. They don’t process facts or use language the way journalists do.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and Vox’s Ezra Klein recently had a spirited conversation about journalism in the Trump era, exploring Klein’s hypothesis that political journalists haven’t just failed to make politics better, but are actually making it worse.

Rosen despaired that members of the political media never stop to take stock of things, and never seriously consider changing their ways.

There have certainly been several appropriate occasions to do so recently, including the failure to challenge the specious arguments for war in Iraq, and missing the financial implosion of 2008 until it was too late. Giving rise to Trump and then failing to explain him properly may be the worst yet.

“The erosion of democratic institutions — not just the press but all of them” is a key element of Trump’s political movement, Rosen said. “I don’t think our journalists have learned how to angle their work so they can defend democratic institutions, and they probably need to at this point because it’s getting so bad.”

The standard defense from our newsroom leaders is that the voting public is divided on what I am calling core American values.

But if Trump were denying gravity — it is just a theory after all — and a big chunk of Americans backed him up, we’d recognize two things quite clearly:

  1. We have not done our job very well, if people believe something so idiotic; and
  2. We have a responsibility to point out – consistently, aggressively, without any caveats — that he is wrong, and that things fall down.

Sometimes it feels to me like the most important requirement to work in a major newsroom these days is to be unflappable. Well, sometimes flapping is the appropriate response.

So how would justifiable outrage manifest itself? Every time Trump is being deceptive, the main thrust of the story should be the truth, not the lie. The story should vividly illustrate how wrong he is. It should point out how no president before has ever lied this much.

Journalists should not shy away from expressing their own informed conclusions about what is true and what is not. Many stories should include quotes from experts in their field — who are treated as trusted sources who know what they’re talking about, not marginalized as “critics.”

When Trump lies in a tweet about wanting to protect people with pre-existing conditions, that’s a great time to write about how the opposite is true. When he lies about wanting a middle class tax cut, that’s a great time to write about how he lied about last year’s massive tax cut for the rich.

Trump is hardly unique when it comes to violating core American and journalistic values. George W. Bush committed the ultimate presidential sin: lying us into war and then trying to cover it up. Barack Obama, despite his vaunted speech to Muslims calling for a new relationship, dropped 26,172 bombs in seven predominately Muslim countries in his last year in office alone. Despite his public commitment to transparency, he made up rules for drone and cyber warfare unilaterally and in secret.

But Trump’s affronts are across the board, and constant.

Back in July, I wrote at great length about how the rebirth of the deflated Los Angeles Times Washington bureau could become an occasion for the sort of journalistic revolution I’m looking for. California newspapers are the natural vanguard. As I wrote (initially on Medium):

A supermajority of Californians see Trump for what he is. California is future-focused — in distinct contrast to Trump’s fantastical visions of a mythological past that he wants to return to. California is leading the state-level resistance to Trump initiatives in areas such as environmental deregulation, health care, immigration and voting rights. Its people are multicultural and pluralistic. They take seriously their role as stewards of the earth.

So from California, the view is clear: Trump is a profoundly regressive force whose actions and statements are dangerous. And he’s being enabled. Congress has abdicated its role as a check to presidential power. The Supreme Court is no longer committed to protecting minority rights. The result: an irrational and unrestrained president threatens the future of our country as a pluralistic constitutional democracy.

A bureau that openly embraces this view as a baseline… would cover Trump very differently from more typical DC reporters, who censor themselves for fear of appearing to take sides.

But that never went anywhere.

I tweeted my intention to write about this topic earlier today, and got some valuable responses. (One of which is already reflected above.)

I like this idea very much:

My ideas tend to stem from my idealism about journalism. Constantly exposing Trump’s con game is a very practical antidote to Trumpism, and potentially highly effective at bringing people who have been deceived by Trump back to reality.

This tweet is a powerful argument against everything I’ve written above, and I partly agree:

And this tweet reflects the existential despair I felt the other day, seeing a (hopefully outlier) poll reporting that 47 percent of registered voters approve of the job Trump is doing.

Do half of Americans consciously and intentionally reject what I still think of as core American values? For now, I’m going to continue to hope that it’s an aberration — a fluke of history — that journalists can help reverse.

Mueller is waiting to make his report until after the midterms. That could be a huge mistake.

Mueller in 2012.
Mueller in 2012. White House photo)

Special counsel Robert Mueller is widely thought to be on the brink of issuing his findings — in the form of indictments, a report, or both — related to the most significant allegations against Donald Trump.

According to Bloomberg reporters Chris Strohm, Greg Farrell, and Shannon Pettypiece, “Mueller is close to rendering judgment” on whether there was collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign and whether Trump obstructed justice — but he’s planning to wait until after the midterms to act on his findings.

This is presumably at least in part due to Justice Department tradition (rather than a firm guideline) that prosecutors avoid dropping politically-sensitive bombs close to elections. The intent is to maintain the appearance that law enforcement is entirely free of political considerations. And while that may sound quaint in this day and age, it remains very much the case that for prosecutors to act with the intent of influencing an election would be a dangerous and deeply troubling abuse of power.

But if Mueller has collected overwhelming evidence that the Republican Party and/or its leader have been complicit in serious crimes, doesn’t the public deserve to know now, before the election?

So consider this possibility: Republicans retain the Senate in the midterms, giving them the power to confirm any Trump appointee they want, and when Mueller finally decides to share the information he has collected, it is so profoundly damning that it might indeed have tilted the election.

In that case, isn’t not acting actually the worse sin?

The specter of former FBI director James Comey is surely haunting Mueller and affecting his thinking. But there are actually two takeaways from Comey’s unprecedented, unilateral decision to share his take on the Hillary Clinton email case four months before the election – and then announce a new review with only 11 days to go.

One takeaway is what a catastrophic error it is to think you know better than everyone else. Comey’s self-appointment to the role of Only Trusted Man in Washington backfired spectacularly and caused enormous damage to the FBI’s reputation – and of course Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

But the other takeaway is that there is in fact a need for a “public interest exemption” of sorts, when law enforcement is keeping secret important information that the public deserves to know.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, wrote a letter to Comey after his initial announcement noting his view that “the American people deserve those details in a case of intense public interest” and asking him to extend this new standard to the criminal investigation of the 2008 financial crisis.

I would argue that a public interest exemption could be especially appropriate before a critical election.

In Mueller’s case, it wouldn’t even be a matter of releasing potentially inappropriate investigative material, it would just require him not to delay the exercise of his duties.

And most people don’t seem to recognize that Mueller’s big reveal is likely to be epic, because he’s not simply pursuing a criminal matter, he’s also running a counterintelligence investigation. (Read my article about that.)

Counterintelligence investigations are vastly more expansive –as are the reports on their findings. In a criminal investigation, the only goal is indictments. In a counterintelligence investigation, the goal is to tell the whole story of what happened, to prevent it from happening again.

Mueller’s decision reminds me of a spectacularly bad one by the editors of the New York Times, before the 2004 presidential election. They suppressed the story by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau exposing George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program until well after the election. Imagine if they hadn’t.

And Mueller’s move could also prove particularly problematic given that Trump has his own midterm calculus. He’s telegraphed quite clearly that he is prepared to get rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the elections. And that alone could easily hamstring, derail, or end Mueller’s investigation.

Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation because he had an obvious conflict. But his replacement, once confirmed by the Senate, presumably would not have any such conflict — and would therefore take control of the Mueller investigation back from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

In Trump’s case, not pulling the trigger is the best of both worlds. He avoids a pre-midterm mobilization of a progressive base that is literally ready to take to the streets on a moment’s notice, should he overtly interfere with the Mueller investigation.

At the same time, he and Republican enablers like Sen. Lindsay Graham have done enough advance work that Trump’s firing of Sessions – at the very least – is considered a foregone conclusion by the political media.

The result is that when Trump does fire Sessions, it will be widely covered as an “I told you so” story more than a “this is outrageous” story – even if it puts Mueller’s investigation in great jeopardy.

Mueller’s decision to keep silent until after the election has elicited almost no criticism in the mainstream media, presumably because “serious people” consider it the “responsible” thing to do.

So thank goodness we have the Onion to put the move in its proper perspective, asking “regular Americans” what they think of it:

The death of Jamal Khashoggi reveals a universal truth about torture

Torture at Abu Ghraib
Torture at Abu Ghraib

Reports from Turkish sources suggest that dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was beaten and tortured to death. It’s not clear at what stage in his dismemberment he actually died, but in audio captured by the Turkish authorities, he reportedly can be heard screaming as his fingers are chopped off.

Khashoggi’s killers evidently didn’t ask him questions. After he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, there was no pretense of interrogation.

His killers were there to exact punishment and revenge.

It’s an unimaginable scene of horror. My fingers shake with rage and sorrow as I type this.

But Khashoggi’s treatment also reveals a universal truth about torture. People don’t torture to get information. There are effective ways to do that, and torture isn’t one.

Fundamentally, torture is about power, revenge, rage and cruelty. It’s about stripping people of their humanity.

And that’s why torture is so abhorrent. That’s what it is (almost) universally condemned as a human rights violation. That’s why it is (almost) always the mark of totalitarian regimes that want to control people.

Professional interrogators use methods that have been proven to work. They do not use tactics reverse-engineered from training to resist the kinds of methods the Chinese Communists used to extract false confessions from captured U.S. servicemen that they could then use for propaganda during the Korean War.

But those and other brutal tactics were precisely what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld let loose in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, to spread through the U.S. military and intelligence services like a virus, to Afghanistan, Iraq, to the CIA black sites in Thailand, Poland, Lithuania and Romania, and to the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Air Force Reserve Colonel Steve Kleinman recalled to Jane Mayer, in her book “The Dark Side,” that he was sent to Iraq in the fall of 2003 because he was an experienced and accomplished interrogator – and was horrified to find that military-CIA task forces were abusing prisoners instead.

Kleinman tried unsuccessfully to put an end to it. And as he told Mayer, “I got into serious arguments with many people. They wanted to do these things. They were itching to. It was about revenge, not interrogation. And they thought I was coddling terrorists.'”

The first time the American public actually saw torture taking place it had nothing to do with interrogation at all, only misplaced punishment and revenge. That was when photos from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published in April 2004. And that was hardly the beginning or the end.

Nor was it an accident or the work of “bad apples.” As a mostly forgotten bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded in 2008:

The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo]. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

Most people still probably think that torture at the direction of government officials only occurred at the CIA black sites. But that’s because of the success of the Bush Administration’s five-year disinformation campaign to hide the direct line between its policies and what happened at Abu Ghraib, and between Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Because in those other instances, they couldn’t even pretend that the torture was necessary to extract intelligence.

After the 2014 release of the redacted executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into torture at the CIA black sites, it became even clearer that torture was completely ineffective as a method of interrogation and was extraordinary brutal — beyond any conceivable moral justification. And it happened during a period when many of the advocates and actors were feeling impotent in the face of an attack on the homeland, and angry at the Muslims they felt were responsible..

So why do it? The obvious answer is that it was ultimately for the same reasons the Saudis tortured Khashoggi: For revenge.